The Impact of COVID-19 Related Closures on Library E-Content Usage

Buildings closed, but libraries stayed open.


Like many states, Illinois ordered a mandatory shutdown of non-essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Public libraries closed their buildings when the Illinois stay-at-home order took effect on March 21, 2020. This analysis explores the impact of this lockdown period on library e-content usage.

RAILS gathered data from several e-content consortia in the RAILS service area including seven OverDrive consortia, one cloudLibrary cloudLink group, and the eRead Illinois Axis 360 shared collection. Consortia provided statistics on e-book and audiobook checkouts in February, March, and April of 2019 and 2020 so that comparisons could be made between e-content circulation before and during the lockdown period. Five of the nine consortia provided us with daily statistics by format for a more detailed study.

E-Content in Libraries

As of March 2020, 100% of public libraries in the RAILS service area can provide their patrons with access to e-content through the BiblioBoard Library, which is available statewide at no additional cost to libraries.

Of the 412 public libraries in RAILS, 23 do not subscribe to another e-content service. 159 libraries offer two e-content platforms, and 230 libraries offer three or more.

E-Content Usage by Month: 2020 vs. 2019

E-content usage increased sharply in April 2020, the first full month of the lockdown period. Checkouts that month increased 58% year-over-year, compared to a 26% increase in March 2020 and 19% in February 2020.

To further explore the impact of the lockdown, checkouts were analyzed by format and by day.

E-Content Usage by Format by Day: 2020 vs. 2019

E-content usage changed notably in mid-March 2020. The charts below show the combined daily circulation rate of the six e-content consortia that provided daily statistics for each format in February, March, and April of 2019 and 2020.
  • E-books had a dramatic uptick, increasing by nearly 100% in April year-over-year, up from a modest 15% increase in February year-over-year.
  • Audiobook usage increased 27% from 2019 to 2020 overall. Circulation in April 2020 alone grew 34% over 2019.

E-Book Checkouts Increased Dramatically in April 2020

Below are charts showing six e-content consortia's daily circulation rates during February, March, and April of 2019 and 2020.

February and March 2020 saw standard increases from year to year, while April saw an additional 87% increase in 2020. This may be due to:

  • The closure of physical library buildings and immediate unavailability of physical library materials
  • Limits on places patrons could go outside their homes

Audiobook Checkouts Increased Slightly in 2020

While audiobook circulation is up year-over-year for 2020, the increase is not as significant as e-book circulation.

An unexpected "pinch" occurred in early March, where audiobook checkouts decreased for a couple of weeks. Otherwise the checkout totals at the end of April 2020 are near pre-lockdown levels. A possible explanation for this includes:

  • Any decrease in audiobook checkouts that was due to changes in patron behavior ( e.g. less time spent traveling or commuting) was offset by an influx of new users to the platforms.

E-Content Available to Everyone

In addition to individual library e-book services, everyone in Illinois has access to the BiblioBoard Library collection through RAILS. This collection does not require a user to log in or register. All of the content is available for simultaneous use.

E-book circulation on the BiblioBoard Library platform did not increase as dramatically as on other platforms during lockdown.

Views of this collection have largely been driven by local community additions, such as Brookfield Public Library’s historical photo collection which accounts for the spike in views in October 2018. RAILS also ran a short, paid Facebook campaign to promote the service in April and May of 2019, which resulted in a sharp increase in usage.

Future Implications in a Rapidly Transitioning World

Time will paint a more complete picture of the long-term impact of COVID-19 related library closures on e-content usage.

• Will e-book circulation remain elevated and/or continue to increase as the pandemic continues, or will it decrease as limited library services, like curbside pick-up, become available?

• How will audiobook circulation trends change over the next several months? Will circulation decline as fewer people commute to a workplace, or will it remain steady?

The bigger picture:

• What impact will these changes have on library collection budgets? Access to a single copy of an e-book costs libraries significantly more than physical books do. Will libraries shift funds to their e-content collections, or will collections shrink?

• As libraries rely on their e-content collections, will this increase the call for more favorable e-content licensing terms from publishers? For more information on this issue see the RAILS E-Book Issues Pulse Page.

Additional E-Content News and Analysis

E-Content is Bridging the Gap during Library Building Closures

So, what's next for this project?

We will revisit this e-content usage project in three months and again in a year. We plan to request more data in the future to continue to assess the impact of COVID-19 on library e-content.

Can I share this information?

YES. Please feel free to share this information widely. Share it with your community, post it to social media, give it to your board, have your staff take a gander at it, etc.

Does RAILS have any other e-content data projects in the works?

Yes! We are working with eRead Illinois Axis 360 data to investigate e-content trends and inform purchasing habits.

How do I get involved?

Thanks for your interest! You can contact Anna Behm, E-Content Specialist, at with questions on how to get involved. Make sure you are subscribed to RAILS E-News and be sure to keep an eye out for calls for participation in COVID-19 related surveys and more.

I sent you information. Can I see my library's data?

Yes! Send an email to Grant Halter, Data Analyst, at to request your data.